States Take the Lead To Stop Foreign Interference in Elections

Man typing on laptop with map of United States and Russian flag in background

For decades, federal law has prohibited foreign interference in federal, state, and local elections. Despite this general federal ban, the law has significant loopholes that have been exploited by foreign interests as recently as the 2020 elections.

The federal ban has not been updated since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), which made it possible for foreign interests to sidestep the ban by making contributions through domestic subsidiaries.

The practical effect of the shortcomings in federal law are readily apparent. In 2014, Russia's Internet Research Agency began its experiment trying to secretly influence U.S. elections, attempting to sow "discord in the U.S. political system" through thousands of social media accounts.

And in 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report detailed Russia's activities to undermine the 2016 and 2018 elections. Yet, the federal government still hasn't taken action to address foreign interference as a serious threat to our democracy, leaving federal, state, and local elections vulnerable to foreign interests.

In the absence of federal action from Congress or the FEC--the only agency responsible for enforcing the laws that govern the U.S. campaign finance system for campaigns for president and Congress--states are taking action to protect our elections from foreign interests.  

By the end of 2020, seven states had passed laws to bar foreign interests from spending money in their ballot measure elections, and at least 10 more states had introduced legislation to ban foreign spending in state and local campaigns.

This year, at least seven states – Maine, Iowa, New York, Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Minnesota – are already considering new legislation that would protect the right of Americans to democratic self-governance.

These states are considering legislation that would address the most important loopholes that can be exploited by foreign interests.

This would include requiring transparency in election spending, ensuring the public knows who is paying for digital political ads, prohibiting foreign-influenced corporations from spending in our elections, and barring foreign interests from spending in ballot measure elections.

Recent state and local elections have illustrated the acute need for these laws.

In one recent egregious example, a Canadian government-owned public utility spent more than $9 million to oppose a Maine ballot measure in 2020, setting up its own state ballot question committee and funneling money from Canada through its wholly owned subsidiary in the U.S.  

In other states and cities, corporations with substantial foreign influence have spent tens of millions of dollars on referenda, threatening to drown out local voices.

One pending bill in Maine, L.D. 479, would address these concerns by enacting a comprehensive foreign interference ban that would stop foreign interests from spending in ballot measure campaigns and prevent foreign corporations from spending to influence state elections. Campaign Legal Center submitted testimony in support of the bill. 

We need to tighten the restrictions on foreign campaign spending and stop the secret, unlimited political contributions known as dark money, which can hide illegal foreign money.

Plugging the loopholes that permit foreign spending and creating full transparency about the true source of all campaign funds can prevent foreign interests from influencing our elections.

To ensure that American democracy remains of, by, and for the people, and free from foreign influence, states are taking the lead in their role as "laboratories of democracy," and the federal government should follow their example.

To learn more, see our DemocracyU toolkit for combatting foreign interference in elections.

Aaron is a Senior Legal Counsel on CLC's Campaign Finance team.
Legislation to Protect Our Elections From Foreign Interference